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4 December 2018

Nigel Farage has quit Ukip. What is he up to?

Ukip's former leader and founder has quit the party. 

By Stephen Bush

Ukip insiders always used to say that while their party’s constitution had plenty of articles, it only had one rule: “Nigel always wins”. But now Nigel Farage, the party’s founder, leader and biggest media asset has quit the party over citing irreconcilable disagreements with its new leader, Gerard Batten.

The cause for Farage’s exit, according to the man himself in a piece written for the Telegraph, is Batten’s decision to appoint the far-right agitator Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, an advisor. Farage describes Yaxley-Lennon as “entirely unsuitable to be involved in any political party”, citing his entourage of “violent criminals and ex-BNP members”, and says that the failure of Ukip’s ruling national executive committee to trigger a vote of no confidence in Batten’s leadership has pushed him to quit.

There’s a lot to get into here. Farage’s political success was in winning over not just the votes of far-right parties like the BNP but in pulling over supporters of the Conservative and Labour parties who had similar attitudes to BNP voters but would not vote for an explicitly racist party. He was – for the most part – able to instead offer an implicit message about immigration and people from abroad. Ukip’s electoral success worried David Cameron enough for him to pledge an In-Out referendum, and while Ukip’s toxicity outside the 15 per cent of voters who backed the party was undoubtedly a drag anchor for Leave, without Ukip, Brexiteers would never have had their big shot.

Now Ukip has become a party that is offering an explicit far right message, and has started to abandon electoral politics for the politics of the street, and Farage’s fear is that it will struggle to repeat, let alone exceed, the electoral successes of Ukip.

There are three important questions here. The first is: will voters notice? We know that Ukip has started to pick up in the polls since ministers started to resign from the government and talk of Brexit being “sold out”. What we don’t know is whether that is solely because if you are angry about the government’s Brexit strategy, you know that the lever to pull is to vote Ukip, or if some of that support is down to Batten’s embrace of explicit Islamophobia and the decision to closely identify Ukip with the far right’s online provocateurs.

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The second is: will voters care? Farage’s political strategy was always based around the idea that unless Ukip publicly eschewed the far right it would never do well enough to achieve its big political strategy. Of course, that Batten could become an MEP under Farage is a demonstration of the extent to which that was a strategy rather than a principle. But it may be that Farage’s strategy is no longer necessary and that Ukip can now win not just the votes of an extremist fringe but a significant number of voters who are semi-sympathetic to some extremist views. It may even be that such a party now passes muster as an acceptable repository of discontent more broadly.

And the third question is what Farage intends to do next. “There is a huge space for a Brexit party in British politics, but it won’t be filled by Ukip” is the final line of his column. Although Farage often speaks of his dislike of the sacrifices he has had to make for politics, of the pain he still feels daily from his plane crash in 2010, his appetite for the limelight has not gone away. It may be that he believes that his brand of outwardly respectable rightwing politics might do very well in a new Brexit party.